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Reviewed by:
  • Pierre; or, The Ambiguities ed. by Robert S. Levine and Cindy Weinstein
  • Joel Pfister
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities
Ed. Robert S. Levine and Cindy Weinstein.
New York: Norton, 2017. xxi + 593 pp.

Robert Levine and Cindy Weinstein have coedited a smart and rewardingly usable Norton Critical Edition of Herman Melville's complex and artfully ambiguous—at times for some readers, exasperatingly obscure and over-the-top—novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852). Their edition features a provocative and wide-ranging introduction, the full text, based on the original Harper Brothers edition, not Hershel Parker's expurgated Kraken edition; helpful footnotes that bear witness to Melville's erudition and clarify historical background, allusions to myths, intertextual references, anachronistic word choices, neologisms, and more; cultural documents, including twelve excerpts from the writings of Daniel Webster, Thomas Cole, James Fenimore Cooper, Lydia Maria Child, John O'Sullivan, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Susan Warner, William Alcott, Thomas Low, and Mary Gove Nichols; letters to Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne and to Melville's English publisher Richard Bentley; contemporary reviews, which prove uniformly sarcastic, peevish, and amusing; illustrations, from Cole to Maurice Sendak; modern criticism, from Sacvan Bercovitch to Jeffory Clymer and Dominic Mastroianni; a chronology of Melville's life, particularly his literary life; and a selected bibliography. It would be misleading to say that this edition illuminates Melville's literary sophistication and historical complexity because Melville's literary and historical intricacies are intertwined. In effect, this edition offers an exhaustive advanced American literature and American studies course on Pierre. But to accomplish this feat the editors had to mount a recovery project. As Levine and Weinstein attest, Pierre "is only beginning to receive its full due" (viii).

The Norton Critical Edition performs a valuable service for scholars at all levels. Levine and Weinstein have made this Norton starting point for Americanist explorations of Pierre easier and more enjoyable. The modern criticism section alone constitutes a volume-within-a-volume of brilliant essays by some of the most astute nineteenth-century Americanists. Selected essays by modern Melville scholars, for example, draw not only on the cultural documents, [End Page 99] contemporary reviews, letters, and visual texts reprinted in this volume, but also on one another's scholarship and on scholarship by other seminal critics, such as Nina Baym, Richard Brodhead, Michael Paul Rogin, Gillian Brown, and Priscilla Wald. No one could compile an all-you-need-to-know-to-read-Pierre book (partly because if we are reading Melville attentively we will always be discovering new things we need to know). But this 593-page edition works hard to give us a lot we need to know to grant Pierre "its full due" in fresh ways.

Of equal or even greater significance, Levine and Weinstein have made a difficult text—one grossly misread and abusively written off in its own time and after—accessible to and fascinating for students. Melville's novel is framed as meaningful and worth reading in large part because it lives up to its alternative title, The Ambiguities. For instance, the introduction and modern essays raise never fully resolvable questions about the novel's gothic refusal to sentimentalize conventional social and familial reproduction despite Melville's wholehearted insistence that his domestic subject matter would ensure the commercial popularity enjoyed by sentimental novels. Most famously he wrote Sophia Hawthorne that Pierre was a "rural bowl of milk" (422). In modern parlance, it can seem more like a beaker of nitroglycerin. The Graham's Magazine reviewer was accurate in comparing Pierre to "the peculiarities of Poe and Hawthorne" (432). After Pierre, which reviewers trashed even more than they had Mardi (1849) and Moby-Dick (1851), Melville began publishing not more novels but socially critical tales for journals. The Levine and Weinstein Pierre helps readers make historical and literary sense of the novel not just as a daring aesthetic and cross-genre experiment but as one of Melville's most radical social critiques. Their edition lends support to Bercovitch's view that Melville had "the most probing critical mind among the American Romantics" (457).

Put bluntly, Levine and Weinstein's edition makes Pierre teachable. If contemporary reviewers wrote off Melville's novel as a confusing...


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